For nearly 20 years, more children have died in hot cars in Texas than anywhere else.
The problem is still puzzling to child advocates and researchers, despite the state’s large population and scorching temperatures.
“The child safety groups I work with and I all kind of scratch our heads at the big numbers in Texas,” said Jan Null, a San Jose State University meteorology instructor who tracks hot-car deaths on his website NoHeatStroke.org. “It’s especially been highlighted this year.”
Here’s how prevalent the problem is in Texas: Since 1998, 107 children in the state have died in hot cars, according to Null’s data. The next state in the rankings is Florida with 77 hot-car deaths, followed by California with 45.
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This year, Texas has accounted for seven of 16 deaths nationally, including a 3-year-old boy in Fort Worth last week, two toddlers in Parker County in May and a 1-year-old boy in Burleson in April.
The Parker County case drew attention when the toddlers’ mother, Cynthia Randolph, 25, was arrested this month on two felony counts of injury to a child.
Randolph told investigators that she locked Juliet Ramirez, 2, and Cavanaugh Ramirez, 16 months, in her 2010 Honda Crosstour to teach them a lesson, according to the arrest warrant affidavit. Randolph then went inside, smoked marijuana and took a nap, the affidavit said.
“This just makes this 10 times worse that a mother would actually do this kind of thing,” Sheriff Larry Fowler said.
Often, though, hot-car deaths are accidental — more than half (54 percent) are a result of parents or caretakers forgetting children in a vehicle, according to Null’s data.
Last week, a Houston father forgot to drop off his 7-month-old son with the baby sitter after taking his two other children to day care. Instead, the father drove to work and the baby boy was left in the back seat, where he was found dead about 10 hours later, according to KHOU-TV.
“They’re somewhat comparable to co-sleeping deaths,” said Fort Worth police Sgt. Wade Walls of the Crimes Against Children Unit. “Nobody intends to kill their child, right? A lot of the time it’s a horrible accident.”
But why the large numbers in Texas?
“I wish I had that answer,” said nurse Sharon Evans, trauma injury prevention coordinator at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
The state’s size and warm weather are natural factors, but Texas also ranks high on a per-capita basis at ninth, with 20.7 hot-car deaths per 1 million residents since 1998.
Arkansas and Nevada top the country at 26.6; Arizona and Mississippi, 25.9; and Oklahoma, 25.1. The full rankings are on Null’s website.
California — another large state with warm weather but not as hot as Texas — ranks in the bottom half, at No. 35, with a rate of 5.6 deaths per 1 million residents.
‘Officers are pretty passionate about this’
“You’d think maybe California would have more,” said Pantego Police Chief Tom Griffith, who’s been an active advocate for preventing hot-car deaths.
Last summer, Griffith had his officers post “Where’s baby?” fliers around town to remind parents not to leave kids in the car. Still, the problem persisted, even in a tiny suburb like Pantego.
In August, Jonathan Ballard, 25, was charged with abandoning or endangering a child through criminal negligence for leaving his 10-month-old daughter in a vehicle outside his business. A grand jury later declined to indict Ballard.
Then in April, Christa Walker was cited with a Class C misdemeanor for leaving her 3-year-old daughter in the car as she shopped.
Neither incident resulted in a fatality or a serious injury. But Griffith said he fears the fatality numbers, as high as they are in Texas, are just the tip of the iceberg.
This spring, Griffith conducted an informal statewide survey through the Texas Police Chiefs Association, polling officers about their experiences dealing with children in hot cars.
Of the roughly 300 officers to complete the survey as of this week, 80 percent said they have responded to a call involving a child under the age of 7 being left unattended in a vehicle.
Griffith’s survey also asked whether officers would support strengthening laws against leaving a child unattended in a vehicle for more than five minutes, increasing the penalty from a Class C misdemeanor to either a Class B or a Class A.
A Class C misdemeanor is equivalent to a traffic ticket; a Class B could result in up to 180 days in jail, while a Class A could result in up to a year in jail.
Eighty-five percent of the officers said they would support strengthening the law.
“Officers are pretty passionate about this,” Griffith said. “They don’t think it should be a slap on the hand and go about your business.
“I realize this is not an issue where we have scores of people dying. But these are children. Innocent children. Most of the children that have died from heatstroke are under 3 years old. They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t advocate for themselves. I feel like we owe it to those children. We’ve got to do everything we can to protect them.”
While the laws haven’t stiffened, there have been efforts to lower the high number of hot-car deaths in Texas.
The nonprofit organization Safe Kids Worldwide formed the Texas Heatstroke Task Force in 2011.
Task force chairman Johnny Humphreys said his group provides resources and prevention information to cities and police departments across the state and works with the Texas Department of Transportation, which posts prevention messages on electronic signs along highways.
Evans, the Cook Children’s nurse, urged parents to never leave their children unattended in a car, even if the law allows a five-minute window.
“I think that kind of gives parents the OK to leave the child,” Evans said. “Then five minutes turns into 15 or 20.”
To prevent incidents caused by forgetfulness, Evans recommended that parents place a shoe in the back seat, forcing them to remember their child every time.
“Without their shoe, they don’t get too far,” Evans said. “It sounds kind of stupid, but it’s one of those things you will realize.”
Look before you lock. Always open the back door to check the back seat before leaving your vehicle. Make sure no child has been left behind.
Put something you’ll need like your cellphone, handbag, employee ID or briefcase, etc., in the back seat so that you have to open the back door to retrieve that item every time you park.
Keep vehicles locked at all times, even in driveways or garages. Ask home visitors, child-care providers and neighbors to do the same.
Keep car keys and remote openers out of reach of children.
Never leave children alone in or around cars; not even for a minute.
If a child goes missing, immediately check the inside passenger compartments and trunks of all vehicles in the area very carefully, even if they are locked.
If you see a child alone in a vehicle, get involved. Call 911 immediately. If the child seems hot or sick, get the child out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.